From the Ground Up

By Elise Bonner posted

Before leaving for a year of research in Russia last summer, I heard from various people that the dissertation was going to be as easy as stringing a few term papers together. The simplicity of this statement, intended to soothe the agitated nerves of the anxious writer, can be deceptive and what it claims does not have to be true. In my experience, a year of research abroad has affected—and often improved—how I design research plans, search archival collections, manage data, and write. These developments make me hope that the dissertation will contain very little resembling the term papers I churned out for coursework.  

A Skype meeting with my advisor last January motivated me to change my research process. After listening to my progress update she suggested that I refrain from committing to a topic. Instead she proposed that I read around and immerse myself in the documents. Having been devoted to a detailed research plan, the idea of straying from my efficient path made me extremely uncomfortable. With only a few months in Russia remaining, I was convinced that I should be executing a plan rather than exploring archival collections. It was a risk to read widely with no guarantee that I would find something good enough to justify such a deviation. The research plan enticed me with its limited focus and promise to exhaust all relevant sources. Executing it merely required the skills I had honed in coursework and exam preparation; I searched and scanned thousands of pages of archival documents efficiently to identify the information I needed to support the argument I wanted to make. The problem—a relatively common one—was that the argument intended to guide my research was almost inevitably going to be uninformed because it had to be conceived without the benefits of having done the research.

Taking my advisor's advice required me to stop searching with such narrow focus. Days passed as I read around in the card catalogs, studied scans of the opisi, and talked to archivists. While doing so I used all the search tools available, finding that each tool's presentation of information revealed or suggested (sometimes erroneously) various ways of perceiving connections among documents from different places over time. Every view offered a facet of the collections' histories and the history that could be drawn out of them.

I began to order a wider variety of documents. I had to read more slowly and thoroughly to understand the information these documents contained and its significance. And when I decelerated my reading the most transformative period of research began. What I was learning during this period forced me to reevaluate the fundamental questions of my dissertation. I continued to read more slowly and by the end of my time in Russia it was not uncommon to go through a collection of documents at least twice. Doing so reliably produced new insights. So I stopped trying to be hyper-efficient. By allowing myself to be more flexible, methodical, and slower, my research became more meticulous, productive, and interesting. I ordered collections of documents that were less obviously connected to my topic and was surprised to find troves of relevant and unstudied materials that will likely constitute the most significant contribution of my dissertation.

Learning how to manage significantly more data and a wider variety of sources has had the unexpected consequence of changing my writing process. Rather than pilfering archival materials for the evidence needed to prove or disprove a hypothesis, I have begun to write, as my advisor calls it, from the ground—from the documents—up. When the year began I followed a previous fellow's example and catalogued my notes, transcriptions, spreadsheets, and digital reproductions in one Excel spreadsheet containing hyperlinks to the various files. As the catalog grew to ogreish proportions I realized that reliably recovering the numerous details that had seemed noteworthy at first glance (even if I had specified this in a note) was going to be either unfeasible or painfully time-consuming during the writing process. I decided to funnel such details into thematic text files as I ran across them in the archives. Contrary to my expectations, several of these files are growing into zygotes of chapters whose central arguments are emerging from my interpretation or analysis of the details contained within them (rather than beginning with an argument and finding the materials to support it). Although this process is producing egregiously disorganized and overstuffed first drafts, the arguments emerging from them are more deeply connected to the archival materials than anything I could have posited before.

In sum, the dissertation has become a project unlike the term papers that preceded it not simply because the scope of the research has expanded. By changing my research process to suit the needs of a larger project, the method and even style of my writing are changing as a result. Considering how the research process has impacted these subsequent stages, one of the lessons I'm also learning from this experience is that the research does not merely generate information based on the questions posed. Rather, this process—particularly the balance between driving the research forward on track and letting it drive you—imprints elements of itself on nearly every aspect of the scholarship that follows. 

Elise Bonner is a 2012 recipient of the CLIR Mellon Fellowship for Dissertation Research in Original Sources. She is also a Mendel Fellow and recipient of the Perkins Prize at Princeton University where she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Musicology.